Singer Carmen Lundy has returned to the scene with an album that can easily be categorized as one of her best yet. With music that is both consistent and a pleasure to listen to, this nine-track collection is entitled ‘Changes’ and features eight original compositions. It is a CD that will charm you, encourage you to dance, sing along and quite simply will brighten your mood. The tracks speak about love from all angles and include themes ranging from love for neighbors and friends, new love and breakups. With a CD launch planned for March 8 – 11 at the Jazz Standard in New York, and another in LA on March 29 and 30, Carmen took time out to speak to JazzReview about the new CD and her upcoming work.
JazzReview: Carmen, thanks so much for taking time to speak to us. In my book, this recording is indeed one of a high caliber. How did the ideas come together for it? What was the inspiration?
Carmen Lundy: Inspiration, well as you can tell, the songs come from a lot of different points of view and I think what happens to me is that I'm always in the discipline of working at my craft in between my performances and travel. I make sure everything stays oiled. It’s a musical experience that never leaves you alone. It is always hovering somewhere, asking you to do something else. I think in this case I had to narrow it down to a few songs, some that I have been performing, you know I like to try out songs on the audience before recording them. That way I can get that instant ‘you-can't-even-pretend’ kind of feedback. It is what it is. So there were a few songs like that, which I had written prior to recording but with the intention that they would be recorded. Certainly the audience helped to determine whether or not it was time to take them into the studio. I had started to record ‘The Night Is Young’ as the first song on the album because I had done a demo back in the late 80s on a cassette tape that my manager at the time had shared with a friend of his who is a disc jockey in London. The disc jockey played the cassette on the air and I guess people heard it! After that I kept getting emails about the song, which they referred to as ‘The Ni Ya’ song (since these are the vowels I sing in the song), from listeners in London. About three weeks before I actually started recording I got another email about the song and that prompted me to include it. I reworked it from the original way I had done it because it didn't feel right. It just felt heavy so I wanted to give it a lighter flavor. I started fooling around with the song on the guitar and it turned out to be what it is now. It's funny how that is, that songs happen when they're supposed to. So yeah, I've been teaching myself to play guitar, and there are a few songs that were born on the guitar such as ‘So Beautiful’, ‘Sleeping Alone’, ‘When Love Surrounds Us’ and ‘Dance the Dance’. Those songs were all written on the guitar and this is a whole new discovery for me. Wow! The whole feeling of how the melodies evolve and kind of jump out is quite different from the way I've experienced writing music from the piano for all these years. So yeah, everything was kind of being in the moment. Then there is the whole idea of taking the songs and adding musicians to them and then asking the musicians to be themselves with the music, not telling them too much of what to do but allowing them to play and to be themselves. That's why we got these really organic and strong performances, because everyone was totally approaching things from both an individualistic and collective way of playing.
JazzReview: How did this CD differ from the last album that you wrote?
Carmen Lundy: Every CD has its unique vibe. It differs because it has a different range of tunes. I kind of wanted to make you want to dance, you know, bopping around the house. I wanted that flavor of dance and groove to be in this record. We don't experience that as often as I think we could. Why can't we dance to the beat? Everybody else can dance to their music so why can't we? I think we could have explored a bit more with this concept. On the last record, ‘Solamente’, I played all the music and that was more exploratory than anything. It was never intended to be an album per se; I sort of got talked into it. Interestingly enough, in hindsight, I think it allowed the audience to experience my process of how I get to where I can bring the music to the listener. With this latest record I think the musicians were really keen on having their say into my music. We all got to participate in introducing new songs to the world. I think the CD has a wonderful feeling. I love the sonics, the sound of the record is great, I love the way that we recorded it, I love the whole energy and we had a wonderful studio setting because it was made of wood. When you are making music the acoustics are much greater when you introduce a lot of wood into the recording setting. We had such a warm feeling. We had a great engineer and a great producer. All the way along the line I think that we had a lot of great components going into the making of this record.
JazzReview: You've been in the business for quite a few years, 35 years to be precise. What do you think about jazz vocalists today as compared to when you got started? Do you feel the style has evolved somewhat?
Carmen Lundy: Well I don't know if what I'm hearing today is as exciting to me. It could be because I am too deeply involved to truly comment. I have seen the genre and this specific entity in jazz develop and we've got many more singers in jazz today than when I first began with my first record, ‘Good Morning Kiss’, in 1985. I mean, I think I was one of a handful at the time, about four or five of us. My thing is that I am about singing and introducing more songs to the public. I did make a record back in the late 80s where I sang all standards. I think it was in 1987. I did ‘Night and Day’ which was an entire record of standards. I found, that as I evolved as a composer, a jazz vocalist and a musician, the world I lived in was different from the world where those songs were considered jazz standards and jazz vocal tunes. The world is different. There is a lot of classic and beautiful material that I certainly could sing but I don't feel that I'm interested in making a career of borrowing songs from another era of American music. So, in my opinion, I prefer to stick my neck out there and have it chopped off in the interest of presenting the audience with new material that talks about what life is like for them rather than the nostalgia of what life was all about before. The interpretation of the artist has a great deal to do with how jazz has evolved. The way we have taken all these songs that started off being written for the Broadway theatre, written for this, that or the other. We interpret them in a way that identifies them as jazz standards. However as a vocalist I just don't do that. Choosing to sing songs from another era doesn’t fulfill me. I have to sing something about today, I have to sing about now, I have to sing about the idea of how the music is evolving and what it is becoming. That’s because influences are about now and have reached the entire world. The music is recognized in every corner of the globe and there are lots of musicians who would come to the United States from other countries, to learn the craft of jazz music, to learn to play and to learn to improvise. They return to their own cultures and do their thing and improve their cultural influences with the music. However, I feel that somewhere we have lost sight of the value of rhythmic concept. The whole essence of the roots of jazz music has somehow been disseminated or watered down. The focus has changed from melody and rhythm to more interesting harmony. So there are a lot of things going on right now in the music. I remain faithful to the essence of something that makes you feel great and to keeping the drive as you become familiar with the sound. Whether it’s from a place of vulnerability or because of having something new to say, I'm kind of hoping that more singers become willing to explore new material. It’s important for them never to lose sight of the element of swing.
JazzReview: What would you say is the hardest part of being in this business?
Carmen Lundy: The hardest part of being in this business is not having an audience. That’s the hardest part of all. It’s important to have listeners and the hardest part is that everybody goes in droves to other genres of music. It must be something we are not doing right. I don't know. I would love to see the black community at large, in this country from sea to shining sea, to invest more in this particular genre of music. I sing in a lot of places in this country and outside of this country. When I do gigs in America I look at the audience and I don't see black folks out there, and you know, I would just love to. For me that is the hardest part. It's that longing for a return to the relentless and eternal support that comes from our community. You know, as I speak to you, I can think of certain cities where we have a greater African American following. For example, I would say that Atlanta, Georgia is an example of where audiences are made up of the die-hards of jazz music. So it's not to say that it doesn't exist but I find that the hardest part is walking into a performance experience and finding a lot of seats empty. That makes it hard.
JazzReview: Do you think that those empty seats help to confirm the fact that jazz is a dying genre? There are a lot of people that would say that.
Carmen Lundy: The only things that are dying are all those great people. Dizzy (Gillespie) is dead and we are not going to get him back but we have his music to listen to forever and a day. Miles (Davis) and Billie (Holiday) are dead but that doesn’t mean their music died with them. To quote Sonny Rollins, "jazz is a spirit, it cannot die." Some of the greatest contributors to the music that we call jazz are no longer with us so what do we do? We can "boo-hoo" or we can pick up the torch and the mantel and keep pressing. I can't dwell on it. I can't do what Ella (Fitzgerald) did although she did leave us a great example of how to get it done and done right. Use that example and find your own voice and let's get the people interested again. Something has to get us out of bed everyday and if I can help people get up and get out of bed, then I feel okay. If I do that then the music isn't dead.
JazzReview: Do you think the media is doing enough to support jazz music and jazz artists?
Carmen Lundy: I would have to say that if you open up the Oprah magazine, or if you read Ebony, Essence and Jet, they are not covering this music. They won't write about it. I would have come and gone on this planet and some of those publications won't even put ink to paper with my name. So I think that some of the publications we depend on to inform the general public are not really doing enough in giving jazz its fair share.
JazzReview: I agree with you on that. I think that being featured in those magazines would definitely reach out to an audience that is broader than those jazz fanatics who already subscribe to jazz magazines. Can you describe how you wind down after completing a new CD? What rituals do you go through?
Carmen Lundy: Well you know I just came back after being on a European tour for a month. I am trying to practice my guitar everyday. I have a home art studio and have been painting and I think this painting has been sitting on my easel for the last four or five months. It’s a way to walk away from the intense energy that is required to do what I do. It is a way to relax but still be in creative mode. But not for long because I always have to address what's coming next. So yeah, there are a lot of performances in the near future so I try to use the downtime in a productive way, in a quiet and creative way.
JazzReview: Speaking about your art, I heard that one of your pieces of art is on the cover of the new CD. Tell us more about that.
Carmen Lundy: The piece consists of mosaic, stone and glass tiles and it's entitled "Now, Tomorrow, Yesterday and Forever." I remember going to the Norton Simon Museum and coming home and starting that piece last summer but I think I always liked all the different paintings of the sun that you would see on the CBS Sunday Morning program. I just love those different ways they were done and I wanted to see if I could do that in my own way and use a different material. I wanted to try something like that. That was the inspiration behind it. I have a few things in my home with mosaic tiles. I wanted to try that medium since stone is forever. I wanted to do something that had feelings of radiating the human spirit and that whole feeling of energy and the source of energy wherever that comes from. Some people say there is only one source and that's God and that's fine with me but I think we all have God in us and this was a way to try, in my small little way, to represent the energy that is now, tomorrow, yesterday and forever.
JazzReview: Art and jazz usually go well together. Have you thought about doing an exhibition combining jazz and your artwork?
Carmen Lundy: Combining jazz and art? I find there is a challenge in mixed media since you're kind of asking for people's attention in two different facets of themselves. I have done a few exhibits; my art was exhibited at The Madrid Theatre in Los Angeles, where I did a live concert, so the Madrid was pretty much an exhibition of my artwork and indoors was an exhibition of my songs. People received it but I think it asked a lot of the audience. I don't know if you can ask them to buy a ticket for the show and buy your painting at the same time. Yet some people have and I think it is a compliment but it's also nice for them to take my music and have it resonating through their home. I think it is all in the way it is designed and marketed but it is mixed media. If you notice, several of my album covers are from my artwork, paintings or some form of my art. I think over time, people may associate my body of art and my body of songs. For the audience to embrace one collective offering would I think be of more interest in the future than it is now.
JazzReview: Finally what is your up-coming tour schedule looking like?
Carmen Lundy: Well, I am scheduled to tour with my band for east coast and west coast CD release events. We will be at the Jazz Standard in New York on March 8-11 and then in Los Angeles at Vitello's on March 29 and 30. After that its on to the Jazz Alley in Seattle for dates on April 3 and 4, April 14th we'll be in Phoenix, AZ, and on May 10 and 12, we'll be at The Mary Lou Williams Women In Jazz Festival at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. After that, on June 17th, I'll perform with Terri Lyne Carrington at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles as part of the Playboy Jazz Festival in support of her Grammy winning album ‘The Mosaic Project’ on which I had the honor of performing one of my songs, ‘Show Me A Sign’. July sees me at The Artown Jazz Festival in Reno, NV and there are also probable dates in Colorado and Northern California. As I said earlier I just finished a European tour in London, Athens, Istanbul and Paris. We'll be going back to Europe in November and December, along with South Africa! I guess that brings us to winter and a few more gigs. It will be interesting to see how things develop.
More about ‘Changes’ and Carmen's voice on the smooth track titled ‘The Night Is Young’ is lithe in the extreme and it's amazing to hear how she effortlessly shifts and segues within the melody. Indeed Lundy darts into altos and sopranos with consummate ease, sometimes without even pausing to catch her breath. Evidence of this can also be heard on the emotional and expressive ‘So Beautiful’, which she uses to celebrate new love. ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ is an infectious song with a powerful message about love without discrimination and a line that alludes to the fact "we all live by the same clock". Other songs on the CD include the soft and engaging ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ while ‘Sleeping Alone’ commences with a lone acoustic guitar that sets the stage for a fluid, bright and gorgeous melody. Elsewhere ‘Too Late for Love’ speaks about mending love while both ‘To Be Loved by You’ and ‘Dance the Dance’ provide Carmen with the opportunity to regale the listener with sumptuous swaying, upbeat sounds. The CD's closing track is the acoustic laden ‘Where Love Surrounds Us’. It’s a delicate song from which Carmen's well-controlled vocals come shining through and is nothing short of magical.